Some refused to heed the warnings concerning the pandemic. Now the massive wildfires in Greece and elsewhere around the Mediterranean, on the heels of major floods in Northern Europe, are sounding a loud alarm.
“No one is safe if we aren’t all safe,” was the takeaway from the pandemic. Now the implications of the new anthropogenic disasters are coming home to roost. First, the extreme weather phenomena will be a more frequent part of our lives. Secondly, our interdependence is inextricable. It is not enough to clean your own yard if your neighbor doesn’t do the same and the forest around you is unprotected. It isn’t even enough if your country has done everything it should on a national level if the planet is facing the impact of extreme, catastrophic climate change.
This world of planetary crises demands we re-examine everything, starting from the basics, from “home.” From the way we build in forests without proper building codes and fire safety zones, to the acres of dead biomass that no one clears up, responsibilities dispersed and overlapping. From the lack of long-term sustainable development planning, or contingency plans for emergencies – which will now arise more and more often.
What’s more, the basics are no longer enough. They are a necessary but not sufficient condition to prevent the worst from happening.
Scientific data show that the proliferation of severe weather phenomena is due to anthropogenic climate change.
Even large, developed countries alone lack the power to confront such global challenges, as we have witnessed with Germany drowning in deadly floods and mega-fires engulfing vast areas of California.
It is clear that we have before us existential challenges of trans-border, supranational and global dimensions.
They demand the strengthening of transnational cooperation, an international system organized on the basis of multilateral institutions, agreements and rules, to protect the common public goods on which the well-being and survival of each and every one of us on this planet depends. It is precisely the environment that calls for European solidarity and a strong global European Union.
Serving as a catalyst for international cooperation, the common threat of natural disasters brings us all closer. Just as the “earthquake diplomacy” of 1999 facilitated the Greek-Turkish rapprochement, so now wildfires in both countries are temporarily melting the ice. (Of course, nationalist reflexes die hard, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to blame the Kurds for the fires. Under his government, Turkey devoted all resources to proxy wars but none to firefighting planes of its own.)
A thermal dome has settled above the Mediterranean, trapping extremely high temperatures in a catastrophic spiral. The extreme heatwaves have triggered mega-fires and released high levels of carbon dioxide, further exacerbating global warming.
We have experienced the Mediterranean as a region of political rivalries, competing exploitation of energy resources, and conflict. It is above all an area of very close, unbreakable interdependence. As the most developed country in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is both a member of NATO and the European Union, Greece must play a leading role in rendering the region one of transnational cooperation, energy transition and sustainable development. Including everyone and excluding none. The European Green Deal provides the framework, and the EU the positive force. This is the appropriate context (EU institutions, international law, multilateral cooperation) in which Greece maintains a comparative advantage to take leadership initiatives.
Domestically, new extreme threats necessitate a new repertoire of political accountability and public responsibility. They demand the mobilization of forces (parties, local government, companies, social partners) to build a new consensus that will allow the country to be shielded against new catastrophic threats. And in this regard, new technologies and business innovation should be oriented toward the needs of ecological balance and sustainable development.
The new map of global threats restructures politics within states, revealing new lines of division. In the Western world it is the cross-party forces of science and rationality versus the “deniers” – deniers of science, vaccines, climate change and empirical truth itself. In the mature American republic, the latter invaded Congress. In Europe they threaten public health and fundamental democratic acquis.
It will take a lot of courage, including political courage, to face the challenges of this new dystopian world of anthropogenic natural disasters. We will need to learn much, and to unlearn even more.
George Pagoulatos is a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).